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Know Your 2016 Opponents: Lafayette

Today's "Know Your 2016 Opponents" series continues with the team that is predicted by College Sports Journal to finish 6th in the Patriot League: Lehigh's arch-Rival, Lafayette.

(Last week, I published Know Your 2016 opponents: Georgetown.)

Lafayette needs little introduction to those who know Lehigh well.  (151 meetings on the gridiron will do that to a Rivalry.)

In parallel to the College Sports Journal preview, this preview encompasses the one that is printed there - with some additional goodies for Lehigh fans as well.

Lafayette Leopards

Head Coach: Frank Tavani, 16th season (82-98)

Biggest strength in 2016: After suffering through an immense number of injuries in 2015, the end of season finally saw Frank Tavani's offense sputter to life, thanks to the emergence of an effective running game.  The emergence of RB DeSean Brown (877 all-purpose yards, 5 TDs) wasn't enough to completely turn around the Leopards' 1-10 campaign, but it did give Lafayette fans a bright spot for the offseason.

Biggest Challenge In 2016: Once the strength of Lafayette's Patriot League championship teams, the Leopard defense gave up an average of 35 points per game.  An anemic pass rush (9 sacks) will undoubtedly be a big point of emphasis in the preseason, as will be preventing sacks (38 last season).

History With Lehigh:  There's obviously loads to talk about when it comes to The Rivalry - there's lots if you search on this neat blog I found made, and even more if you read this book I wrote.  But the really, really short version is that it's the most-played football Rivalry in history - Lehigh and Lafayette have met 151 times on the gridiron, and will be meeting for the 152nd time this year.

Is this your screensaver yet?
Last Meeting: It wasn't to clinch a Patriot League title, but it nonetheless was a satisfying 49-35 win for Lehigh over Lafayette to finish last season.

In a game with plenty of highlights on offense, one clearly stood out head and shoulders above the others - senior QB Nick Shafnisky taking hold of CB Matt Smalley, who is currently in New York Giants training camp this summer, and chucking him out of bounds, causing the Lehigh crowd to erupt.

The emphatic Lehigh win obscured the fact that it was Lafayette's second time going over 35 points in the 2015 season.  It might have been a rough loss and a rough season, but the offensive burst was clearly something positive for the offseason.

Biggest Departures: Aside from Smalley, whom few Leopard opponents dared to test through the passing game last season, graduated and finds himself on the New York Giants' preseason roster.  SS Jared Roberts, too, also graduates after finishing fourth on the Leopards in tackles last season.

Lafayette QB Drew Reed
Players To Watch: Which version of QB Drew Reed will Leopard fans see this fall?  As a freshman, Reed surprised many to emerge from nowhere to guide the Leopards to a stunning Patriot League title and appearance in the FCS playoffs, not to mention MVP of the 149th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette.  After an injury-riddled sophomore year and an inconsistent junior campaign, though, all eyes have to be on Reed to see if he can continue to build on the end of last season, where it looked like the Leopards were starting to turn things around a little.

Biggest Game: at Central Connecticut State, 9/2/2016.   It pretty much goes without saying that Lafayette's biggest game of the season takes place on the third week in November.  This season, though, you can make a good case that the Leopards' first game of the season approaches that one in importance.

In 2015, Lafayette faced off against William and Mary and Delaware in consecutive weeks, losing both games, and never seemed to shake off that smell of losing the entire season, except against struggling Wagner.  In 2016, Lafayette still has a daunting schedule with games against Delaware, Villanova and FBS Army-West Point, but they open a season with a very winnable game against the Blue Devils up in New Britain, CT.  A win there might be the springboard to a successful season; a loss might have Leopard fans see the same script unfolding as 2015.

Stopping Lafayette:  Last season, the key was to pressure Reed mercilessly behind an inexperienced offensive line and force him into incompletions and mistakes.  Before the emergence of Brown at running back, the Leopards struggled to make teams pay for this strategy through the running game.

Similarly, on defense, the key was to run early, and run often, on the Leopards.  Lafayette averaged yielding 206 yards per game on the ground, barely beating Lehigh's rush defense for last place in the Patriot League.

Lafayette LB Brandon Bryant
Rose-Colored Glasses Say: "So many injuries last season really made 2015 the lost season, but with this level of talent on the field - and so many contributors returning - it's very easy to see the Leopards with a HUGE bounceback in 2016.  I could see the Leopards competing for the title.  Why not us?  We have an emerging star running back, our star linebacker, LB Brandon Bryant, returning.  We have the tools.  If we can stay injury-free, we got a shot."

Glass Half Empty Says: "Is Reed the guy?  He may have had some injuries last season, but there were plenty of games where, for whatever reason, he couldn't manufacture more than one score a game.  That's not going to fly in this year's Patriot League, which is loaded with poerful offenses that require matching score-for-score.  They'll certainly be better than 2015, but not that much better, especially with our two best defensive backs to replace."

Lafayette In Two Sentences: Lafayette's 1-10 season in 2015 was unexpected by pretty much anyone who has ever watched a Frank Tavani team in action.  They have the talent to turn it around - if they can find some stability in the trenches and Reed returns to his freshman year form.

CSJ Projected Ranking: 6th, Patriot League

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